Janet Street Porter

Columns in The Independent are surely the musings of the socially inept, those people you sidle away from at parties after a couple of stabs at conversation. They are the product of the system that has given a "voice" to people who have nothing to say apart from the fact that we\’re all doomed, it\’s capitalism\’s fault and by the way, I met someone famous recently. Thousands of hackneyed opinions about books, politics, the environment and society written by people who can\’t use a logical argument or recognise a fact. Endless reviews of this and that tapped out by idiotarians who\’ve never experienced any culture other than the one within their own heads.

Tee Hee

Naughty boy Willem, naughty boy:

P.S. For those who have noticed, I am indeed trying out \’yo\’ as a replacement for he/she/it, him, her, and \’yo\’s\’ for his/her/its.  It\’s the only hope for George W. Bush to leave a positive legacy in any area of life.

Drug Prices and Protectionism

Dean\’s half right here:

If the NYT ever let a real free trader write a column, they would probably also report on the enormous costs imposed on both the economies of the United States and developing countries through copyright protection and patent protection on prescription drugs. The latter raises drug prices in the United States by close to $200 billion a year (@ $670 per person) over their competitive market price. Free traders would be concerned about such costs.

Assume that those figures are correct. Free traders would indeed be concerned about that. Indeed are. And free traders like me look at that and go, well, OK, Americans are paying $200 billion a year more for their drugs than they would in a free market, unencumbered by such copyright and patent protection. Hmm, so, well, who benefits?

The answer is all of those foreigners who get to enjoy the drugs that the Americans have kindly subsidised the development of. For the purpose of the patent monopolies is to enable the pharma companies to recoup their $800 million per drug development costs. And to the joy of everyone else on the planet, it\’s the septics who are actually footing that bill. Everyone else is paying much closer to marginal cost than they are.

And, of course, this appeals to the (modern) liberal mindset too, or at least should do. It is, after all, or at least so we are told, righteous that the rich should subsidise the health care of the poor. The Americans are the richest (large) nation on the planet and they are indeed subsidising the health care of everyone else.

Something of a result then, don\’t you agree?

Climate Change Policy

Want to know why the actual policies put forward to deal with climate change are so crap?

John Hutton, the Business Secretary, would like to see 7,000 wind turbines built off the British coastline by 2020. That’s roughly two a day, if we started construction now, worked flat out, even weekends, had enough engineers for the job (did I mention Network Rail?) and everything went without a hitch.

“It’s crazy,” says Sue Ion, from the Royal Academy of Engineering. “Building wind turbines in a difficult marine environment is not an easy job. This is a serious engineering challenge that hasn’t been thought through properly.”

In September the academy, backed by the large engineering institutions, proposed a feasibility project to see whether Government ambitions to green the nation were technically doable. The project would, according to Dr Ion, provide a kind of engineering roadmap, assessing current technologies and forecasting research still required. Best of all, it would cost a miserly £750,000 and be free of vested industrial interests.

Surprisingly, the Government has yet to respond. Dr Ion admits her frustration: “The science on climate change is clear but people have forgotten that engineers have to apply that science. It’s all very well to say that we’ll have 20 per cent of our energy coming from wind power by 2020, but that’s useless if nobody’s done any studies on how that’s going to be delivered. If people continue to set unrealisable targets, Government policy will begin to lose credibility.”

Because everyone\’s missed a rather important point. Having accepted the "scientific consensus" everyone is now shouting out in their own best interests. If you are indeed going to accept the position of experts, wouldn\’t it be rather useful to listen to all of the experts? The engineers, say, the economists perhaps?

Instead of the political process, which is simply a sorting though of the various special interest groups?

Cretins, Cretins

You knew this was coming of course:

The Chancellor has demanded a meeting with the energy regulator to explain why fuel prices have risen so dramatically,

Having a lawyer as Chancellor is going to cause such things. An ignorance of how markets work (err, you have seen that oil is around the $100 mark Alistair?) isn\’t a great qualification for that office.

This is worse though:

Some experts believe that energy companies can buy reserves in advance and that there is no need for the price rises in raw materials to be fed through to consumers at once.

That companies can make long term contracts is true: but that doesn\’t mean that price rises should not be fed through. It\’s pretty much a basic thought that you should sell your products at their replacement costs, not their actual costs. Indeed, all energy companies do this: it\’s why BP and Shell\’s profits soar when prices rise and fall dramatically when they fall. Because they value the oil in process at what they can sell it for, not what they paid for it.

Most Sad

Piece in The G makes this statement.

Jobs define us

An extraordinarily sad statement. That where we export our labour to is the definition of us?

No, humans are really rather more complex beings than that.

True, But

What is the point of the Mr, Mrs, Lord and Lady? Very few people other than lawyers appreciate these niceties. Nor is there any reason why they should. They are neither logical nor necessary.

If, centuries ago, there was a valid reason for adding these appendages, it has long disappeared.

But just because something is only historical, neither currently logical nor necessary, isn\’t actually a reason to change it. We could call Black Rod the Head of Security for The Commons if we liked, wouldn\’t change all that much except losing us a little part of our rich and varied history. A loss of something for nho very good or great purpose.

Planning, Gorgeous Planning!

As we know, the training of doctors in the UK is a government monopoly. While they control the medical school numbers only indirectly, they control the number of NHS training posts directly. Thye system is thus planned from the centre:

Three applicants will be fighting it out for every post and in some surgical specialities competition ratios will exceed 20 to one.

This centralised planning thing works really well, doesn\’t it?

Random Survey of the Day

Well, it\’s one way to get your name in hte papers. Conduct a survey, make up an interesting factoid and fax it out.

Divorce lawyers are expecting their busiest day of the year today as the pressure of Christmas and the New Year holidays finally blows rocky marriages apart.

The period just ended is probably the one time of the year when the family is indeed all together, at home (rather than abroad on hols).

Just goes to show, eh? Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Three Strikes and You\’re Out

This will, of course, cause an outbreak of the screaming abdabs in certain quarters.

Benefit claimants will lose a month\’s worth of state handouts for the first job they turn down, three months\’ of payments for the second "reasonable offer" and a third employment refusal will be punished with a bar on unemployment benefits for up to three years.

It\’s going to be so much fun when the screaming starts, for it\’s actually an idea from Lord Layard, the Labour Peer. Details here.

Timmy Elsewhere

At the Globalisation Institute. An interesting paper:

So there\’s a bit of a conundrum here. Either the usual models are incorrect or we should see a surge of popular support for much higher taxes on high earners. Something which we don\’t see, which is what is leaving Polly high and dry. Indeed, we\’ve actually seen the demand for redistribution dropping to below the levels of the 1970s, to their lowest recorded levels. Why?

Indeed, why aren\’t people following Polly\’s demands for higher taxes on the rich?


What\’s a Marathon?

No, I know what a marathon is in running, a touch over 26 miles. I also know that I\’ll never run a marathon as my knee cartilages are screwed.

However, there are two other "endurance" sports that I can do, cycling and swimming. I\’m not saying that I\’m very good at them, but I can actually do them without entirely buggering up one joint or the other. So, the question is, what is the equivalent of a marathon in those two other sports?

Now with cycling I\’ve been thinking about it this way. A top class runner takes a shade over two hours to run a marathon. Thus a marathon in any other sport would be whatever is two hours concentrated effort by a top class performer. (I\’m sure there are errors with this idea so please do explain them to me.)

The world one hour record on a bike is around 50 km. Thus the equivalent of a marathon is 100 km on a bike, or thereabouts (which would explain why I feel somewhat tired today as by this standard I did a half-marathon yesterday….although not, obviously, in one hour).

But that calculation is rather buggered by the fact that Tour de France riders do more than 100 miles per day. Are they really doing 1.6 marathons a day for 23 days or whatever it is?

With swimming it gets dodgier, (or at least my numbers do). 1500m (a mile, essentially) is around 15 minutes as a world record. Thus the equivalent of a marathon in swimming is something like 8 miles.

Just eyeballing those figures, the cycling one looks too low, the swimming one too high. (For example, back when I was swimming regularly, a mile was a reasonable daily outing, but 8 would be nearly unthinkable. Now I\’m cycling 20-30 km is a stretch of the legs, the 50 yesterday was an outing, so 100 (and Î\’ve done 80 and 90 in the past couple of months) simply doesn\’t feel right for something as supposedly draining as a marathon.)

But here\’s the question. How far do I have to cycle or swim to be able to say that I\’ve done the "equivalent" of a marathon, given that I\’m physically incapable of doing the running one?Anyone?

I\’m Not All That Sure About This

It\’s taken as an item of faith that medicine is going to continue to get ever more expensive:

First is rationing. Nearly all of us now know that the NHS � the taxpayer � cannot afford to pay for all the treatments and drugs that are already available, still less for those that will be developed in the future.

The demand is going to be almost infinite; tax receipts are not. As more conditions become treatable and patients’ demands become more sophisticated, this problem will soon be a great deal worse.

I\’m not convinced.

Yes, the services part of health care, the labour that goes into it, is going to continue to get more expensive as compared to manufacturing (Baumol\’s Cost Disease). But the drugs part of treatments? I have a feeling that, a decade or two down the line, they\’re going to be vastly cheaper. The reason is patents.

I don\’t think it\’s all that controversial to say that we\’re going through a technological revolution in medicine. The human genome, new drug testing methods, advances in cancer drugs and so on. We also know that this is leading to some very expensive treatments (£ 20,000 for a course of Herceptin, isn\’t it?). But patents on such drugs only last 17 years. Perhaps a decade from the time they first come into use (given the time it takes for approval). At the end of that time they are available for generics manufacturers to make. And thus end up costing something closer to spit, rather than the $ 1 billion or so that has been recouped to pay for the development and testing process implicit in the pricing while under patent protection.

So this rise in medical costs is only going to continue as this technological revolution works its way through the system: costs should fall after that.

British Living Standards Higher Than the US?

Well, that\’s one claim, anyway:

LIVING standards in Britain are set to rise above those in America for the first time since the 19th century, according to a report by the respected Oxford Economics consultancy.

The calculations suggest that, measured by gross domestic product per capita, Britain can now hold its head up high in the economic stakes after more than a century of playing second fiddle to the Americans.

It says that GDP per head in Britain will be £23,500 this year, compared with £23,250 in America, reflecting not only the strength of the pound against the dollar but also the UK economy’s record run of growth and rising incomes going back to the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, it\’s tosh, as they\’re using market exchange rates. Should b using PPP, as even the authors of the report agree:

The Oxford analysts also point out that Americans benefit from lower prices than those in Britain. With an adjustment made for this “purchasing power parity”, the average American has more spending power than his UK counterpart and pays lower taxes.

Back to sleep everybody.

A Very Sensible Policeman

Good grief! Decent common sense being talked about drugs!

The policeman has a broad answer: “There has not been a single case of someone dying as a result of being poisoned by ecstasy.

“The most famous case is that of Leah Betts, a young girl who actually died of water poisoning in 1995. Because ecstasy causes you to be thirsty, she drank too much water. Her brain stem was crushed and her heart stopped. My advice to everybody is don’t take ecstasy in the first place. But why should it be a criminal offence? It may be stupid, but why should you be arrested and prosecuted?”

He believes it would be ludicrous to ban alcohol and cigarettes and wants them included in a new substance misuse act – but he admits “nobody knows” how they might be regulated. He also advocates the legalisation of class A, B and C drugs, which would be dispensed by the state and thus deprive criminals of a multi-billion-pound market. He doesn’t want drug-takers needlessly criminalised.

Invoking numerous sources, he claims the war on drugs is unwinnable. “It is not possible to run a democratic country and stop drugs getting in,” he insists. “We reckon, on the best evidence we’ve got, that we stop between 10 and 12% at best of the drugs imported into the UK.”

His assertions on heroin would give most antidrugs campaigners cold turkey. Despite heading his “hierarchy of harm”, he says it is “not particularly dangerous”, although highly addictive. “If taken sensibly, heroin has no known adverse medical effects.”

Brunstrom contends that prescribing heroin to addicts has been proved to reduce their criminal activities: “Because most of their criminal behaviour is driven by the need to gain cash and buy more drugs.”

Something of a pity that no one is going to pay the blindest bit of notice.